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Does the official NFL football have a name?

October 12, 2011 | 11:55 am

FabforumFOOTBALL URBAN LEGEND: The NFL's official football has a name.

Giving names to inanimate objects is a tradition that has been going on for centuries, from the christening of vessels on their way to sea to the guy down the street who calls his old beat-up Chevy "Betsy" (the number one name car owners give their cars). This tradition has extended to baseball, as well.

 From Shoeless Joe Jackson, whose famous bat "Black Betsy" (man, people sure love to name their stuff "Betsy," don't they?) sold for nearly $600,000 at an auction a decade ago to current Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey, who names his bats after fictional swords (like Hrunting, the famous sword used in the epic poem "Beowulf"), giving nicknames to your bats is not particularly unusual.

However, the National Football League (NFL) has gone one step further with its official game ball - it has an actual official name!

What is it? Read on to find out!

Tim Mara founded the New York Giants in 1925 at the behest of the NFL, who felt that their fledgling league needed a team in the biggest market in the country. Mara was the owner and President of the Giants from 1925 until his death in 1959. In that time, he turned the Giants into one of the most successful franchises in NFL history. When the Pro Football Hall of Fame was founded in 1963, Mara was an inaugural member. Mara's sons, Jack and Wellington, took over the running of the team upon Mara's death (Jack as President, Wellington as Vice-President - the brothers had already been running the day-to-day operations of the team unofficially since 1946, with Jack handling the business side of things and Wellington handling the on-the-field side). Jack died in 1965 and then Wellington ran the team from 1966 until his own passing in 2005, with his son John then taking over the team (Bob Tisch bought a piece of the Giants in 1991 and co-owned the team with Mara until 2005, as Tisch died less than a month after Mara. Tisch's son Steve currently co-owns the team with John Mara). Wellington Mara was also enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame (unlike his father, he lived to see his enshrinement in 1997). Mara's most significant achievement as an owner came in the early 1960s when he and his brother Jack agreed to split the revenue from the TV airings of NFL games evenly with the other teams. This decision reverberates in the NFL to this day (and it is the main reason why the Green Bay Packers are able to still have a team).

Long before he was owner of the team, though, Wellington Mara was associated with the Giants. During the team's first season in 1925, at the ripe old age of nine, he served as the Giants' ball boy. After graduating college, Wellington went to work in the Giants front office, serving as the Assistant to the President and Treasurer in 1937; Secretary from 1938–1940; Vice-President and Secretary from 1945–1958; Vice-President from 1959–1965; President from 1966–1990; and finally President and Co-Chief Executive Officer, 1991–2005 (his death). Everyone believed that Tim Mara had named his son after Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington (a famous British military and political leader who was born in Ireland, which would likely be appealing to the Irish-American Mara). Whether he did or not (and he almost certainly did), the key point is that everyone thought that he did, so they nicknamed the younger Mara "The Duke."

In 1941, George Halas (owner of the Chicago Bears) began to negotiate with Wilson Sporting Goods to make Wilson the exclusive supplier of official game balls for the NFL. Mara backed Halas on the deal and at the 1941 owners meeting, the NFL signed a deal with Wilson that still goes on to this day. In gratitude for Mara's help in getting the deal done, Halas suggested that they name the ball after Mara's son, Wellington, then serving a stint with the U.S. Navy for World War II (the only time from 1937 until his death that Wellington was not involved in the day-to-day operations of the New York Giants). This was agreed upon and the official NFL game ball was officially named "The Duke." It was displayed in big letters on one side of the ball.

This remained the status quo from 1941 until 1969. In 1970, the NFL merged with the American Football League (AFL). Presumably not wanting to exacerbate any feelings that the NFL thought that they were better than the AFL, the original NFL owners agreed to drop the name from the ball. So for over thirty years, the official NFL game ball had no official name.

That changed in 2006. In honor of the passing of Wellington Mara, the NFL agreed to once again officially name the NFL game ball "The Duke." Now, though, instead of being in big letters on one side of the ball, it is in small letters on the left side of the NFL logo (right above the Wilson logo). Still, it is quite an honor for the Mara family. So, naturally enough, this story is...


Thanks to Tyler Kepner for the neat information about R.A. Dickey's bat-naming habits.


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